What not to say to Sheryl Sandberg

May 4, 2015, 8:21 PM UTC
Allen & Co. Media And Technology Conference
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., left, and her husband David "Dave" Goldberg, chief executive officer of SurveyMonkey, arrive to a morning session at the Sun Valley Lodge during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Technology companies from Silicon Valley are expected to take center stage at this year's Allen & Co.'s Sun Valley conference as tech and media converge. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Scott Eells — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The shocking news of Dave Goldberg’s death on May 1 initially came via a post on Facebook, where his wife, Sheryl Sandberg, famously serves as COO. “We want to celebrate his life in a manner that respects the family’s privacy,” wrote Goldberg’s brother, Robert. “Sheryl, their children, and our family would be grateful if people would post their memories and pictures of Dave to his Facebook profile.”

How I wish that Sandberg could continue to keep people’s sympathy at such a remove. Instead (and I say this with some experience, having lost my husband to leukemia six years ago), here is more likely what will happen. Relatives, friends, colleagues, even strangers will turn up on her doorstep armed with food, hugs and doleful looks that contain a trove of unspoken questions: Is she going to fall apart? How are her two children holding up? How is she going to juggle home and work now?

There will be words of commiseration. “But Dave was so healthy…” (Bewilderment.) “What exactly happened?” (Attempt to reassure yourself this couldn’t happen to you.) There will be expressions of consolation. “This must be so hard.” (Helplessness.) “If there is anything, anything, that I can do, just call me.” (Attempt to rein in the helplessness.) There will be words of advice. “Don’t make any major decisions the first year.” (Meaningless.) “The second year is the hardest.” (Huh?)

Through it all, I’m going to guess, Sandberg will bear up with the grace and poise for which she is known. She will nod; match each sad look with an Ah, well, cock of her head; reassure her well-wishers that she and her children will be fine. Perhaps she will find all of the attention a comfort. Perhaps she will find the endless offers of “Anything” a solace.

But here’s another possibility. As the days slowly crawl by, with more and more people crowding her to offer the same words and questions, the concern may begin to feel heavy, even smothering. I’ve never met Sandberg, but after talking to hundreds of widows, I’ve discovered that few widows find it satisfying to answer the same questions over and over. Those offers of “Anything”? Most widows silently react this way: You want me to stop everything and come up with something for you to do? Now?

Our cultural script for dealing with other people’s grief is, to say the least, limiting. It presupposes that everyone’s way of handling grief is cut from the same cookie cutter. And this particular shape doesn’t even make sense for most people. Think about it. A week ago, Sheryl Sandberg was, in addition to being Dave Goldberg’s wife, a tech executive, an author, a mother, a member of several boards, a Menlo Park neighbor, a social activist.

Now, as people crowd into her living room, they see only one thing: a widow. Sandberg knows she’s bereft. Does she really need people reminding her 24/7 of her grief? Maybe it would be more useful to help her reconnect with the parts of her life that remain intact, the parts that promise — if not now then maybe a moment from now — to provide distraction and pleasure.

At some point, Sandberg is likely to decide to go back to work. This will produce a chorus of, “Are you sure you’re ready? You don’t have to do this.” Really? Maybe she does. No one but Sandberg knows.

A friend of mine returned to her work as a school principal one week after her husband died in an airplane crash. Me? I returned two weeks after my husband’s death to my job because I thought that trying to focus my attention on something other than my grief might help to make the intolerable a little less intolerable. The looks of pity that greeted me in the halls, the conference rooms, even the ladies’ room, were not helpful. Ditto, the people who knocked on my door to say, “Just wanted to ask how you’re doing.” Off they’d go after the hit-and-run, leaving me seeped in grief, trying to dig my way back to some semblance of concentration.

Here’s a suggestion for Sandberg’s friends and colleagues: don’t treat her like a Rorschach Blot onto which you project your own fears and fantasies of what you would need if you were in her shoes. Instead, get the whole woman in your line of sight. Then, take your cues from her. If you watch, if you listen, she will signal what she needs — not what you think she needs.

Jill Smolowe is a grief coach and the author of the memoir, Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. She previously was a staff writer at People and Time, which, like Fortune, are owned by Time Inc.

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